Lithuania is the largest and most populous of the Baltic states which include Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Although there have been many claims from different cities and countries for being the “geographical center of Europe” depending on the Europe boundaries that are used (including islands or not), a recent study claims that the center of Europe could be the village of Bernotai (Purnuškės), about 15 miles from Vilnius, capital of Lithuania.
As illustrated with today’s cepelinai recipe, Lithuanian cuisine is generally very mild with minimal use of spices. Potatoes and rye bread are the staple foods and pork is the most favored meat, followed by beef and chicken.
Cepelinai are large dumplings prepared with potato dough, that are stuffed with meat (or sometimes cheese or mushroom) and are generously covered with a rich and creamy gravy with bacon or pork rinds. Various modern versions have also been imagined based on these traditional potato dumplings. For example, the high-end restaurant at the 5-star Kempinski Hotel Cathedral Square in Vilnius is serving cepelinai that are filled with crayfish and topped with a light saffron sauce.
Cepelinai were named after the inventor of the zeppelin aircraft, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. Lithuania’s national dish, which is over 150 years old, was originally called didzkukuliai. They were renamed cepelinai because of their cylinder shape similar to zeppelins.
Although this recipe now truly symbolizes Lithuanian national pride, its main ingredient (potato) were only brought to Lithuania in the 17th century, and it only became widely used for food in the beginning of the 19th century.
Lithuania, which originally stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, has struggled to maintain a national identity compared to greater regional powers, including Germany, Poland, Russia and Sweden. Lithuania gained its independence from Russia in 1918.
Even though Lithuanian peasants started eating potatoes in the nineteenth century, potato dumplings were really mostly popular with the middle classes as they were time-consuming to prepare. As Lithuanian agriculture was extensively reformed and reorganized under the Agricultural and Land Reforms of 1922, cepelinai started to represent the new, independent, modern, and socially equitable country.
Potato is definitely a staple in Lithuania and its surrounding countries, and many regional potato dishes are substantial enough to be main courses in their own right, just like cepelinai.
Other Lithuanian potato-based recipes include bulviniai blynai, potato pancakes usually served with sour cream (grietine); bulviniai vedarai, potato sausages; kugelis, a potato pudding which can also include carrots (morkos).
Cepelinai are typically Lithuanian but they have distant cousins in the neighboring countries, including pyzy and kartacz in Poland, kroppkaka in Sweden, Acadian poutine râpée, raspeball in Norway or Kartoffelklöße in Germany.
I have to say those cepelinai were not easy to make the first time. Indeed, you should not overlook two steps. The first one is to make absolutely sure that the potatoes are thoroughly drained. If the potato mixture is not thick enough, it will break while boiling. The trick is to add potato starch to the dough in case it is too soft. The second one is to either use vitamin C (or a little lemon) to prevent the potatoes from browning during the preparation. Alternatively, you can place the peeled potatoes in water with a little lemon juice until you are ready to grate them and drain them, but you should not wait more than 10 minutes to form and boil the cepelinai.
Once you have mastered the grating, shaping and boiling of the cepelinai, you are on your way to become a true Lithuanian! Relax and enjoy those luscious and creamy delicacies from the Baltic Sea.
- 6 lb potatoes (ideally russet or Idaho)
- 1 pill vitamin C (or ½ lemon)
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 1 lb ground beef (or pork)
- 1 onion , chopped
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 4 oz. bacon , diced
- 2 onions , chopped
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 cup sour cream
- Peel the potatoes. Crush the vitamin C pill and place in a large mixing bowl. Alternatively, press the juice of half a lemon.
- Grate the raw potatoes with an electric or manual potato grater into the bowl. Regularly mix the potatoes so they do not turn dark.
- Place some of the grated potatoes into a cheesecloth over a separate bowl and squeeze until the potatoes are almost dry. Repeat with the remaining grated potatoes.
- Slowly pour away the potato juice from the bowl to collect the layer of potato starch settled at the bottom of the bowl.
- Incorporate the potato starch with the drained grated potatoes, add salt and knead until well combined.
- Combine the ground beef (or pork), chopped onions, pepper and salt. Mix well.
- Fill a large stockpot with water, add 1 tablespoon of salt, and bring to a boil.
- Take a portion (size of a tennis ball) of the potato dough and flatten in your hands. Take a smaller portion (size of a golf ball) of the meat filling and put in the center.
- Fold the potato dough to seal the dumpling and form the shape of a zeppelin. Repeat with the remaining dough and meat.
- Once the water comes to boil, reduce heat to medium and slowly lower the cepelinai into the boiling water.
- Boil for 20 minutes or until the meat filling is cooked through. Carefully remove the dumplings from the stockpot with a slotted spoon.
- Add the diced bacon and chopped onions into a large frying pan. Sauté on medium heat for about 8 to 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper.
- Turn the heat off, then add the sour cream. Mix well and thin the gravy with a little hot water or chicken stock if necessary.
- Serve the cepelinai generously topped with the gravy.